Last summer’s desert adventure makes a great rental.
Debuting this Tuesday (September 14) on DVD and Blu-Ray, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is about everything you could want from a summer action movie and maybe a hair’s breadth more. It’s a good-looking film, with Disney studios’ famous production design capabilities brought to bear on a time and place that haven’t been used a million times already. The talented cast is good-looking and energetic and the great Sir Ben Kingsley plays the heavy. Most action films have to make do with less – Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, had a more cumbersome script and less talented cast while not enjoying, if that’s the right word, a highly successful series of video games as its source material. The film tanked at the box office last June, but for late-summer rental viewing it’s a promising choice.
This comes partially from the film’s sense of familiarity. Despite all the handsome sets and lovely people, there’s sometimes a tired sense of going through the motions to much of the plot and action sequences, as if the story would rather be someplace else or serving another purpose. Director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) keeps the scenes moving from one to the other in rigidly linear fashion, even if his narrative rhythms are too choppy and too many scenes feel deeply truncated. At the risk of second-guessing, it’s hard not to imagine the director working with a set runtime in mind and keeping the action sequences in their entirety, at the expense of everything else. When it’s not trying to make up its mind where to go next, however, the film gets very entertaining at the drop of a dime.
The back story really only serves to give context to that exotic setting: fifteen hundred years ago, young Dastan is a street waif in the empire’s capital city, living on scraps with his wastrel friends. When he defies a group of soldiers in order to rescue a friend, his courage impresses King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) who adopts the boy into his family. Fifteen years later, the adult Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) lead an assault on the far-flung but holy city of Alamut, investigating reports that the Alamutians are selling weapons to Persia’s enemies. Dastan and his group of irregular commandos lead a flanking attack against the city, capturing it largely through Dastan’s impressive parkour skills. During the battle Dastan recovers the mystical Dagger of Time from one of the city’s defenders, and local high priestess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) is also captured.
During the army’s celebrations upon their return to the imperial capital King Sharaman is killed by poisoned robes Tus gave Dastan to present as a gift. Blamed for the murder, Dastan flees the city, inadvertently taking Tamina and the dagger along. He soon discovers that the dagger can turn back time, allowing him to step briefly back into the past and change events. The mystical power is drawn from the sands of time itself, Tamina explains, the same sands the gods once almost used to destroy humanity. Enlisting the aid of conniving Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina) and his knife-wielding bodyguard Seso (Steve Toussaint), the two attempt to prevent Dastan’s uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and his death-worshipping Hassansin warriors from stealing the sands for themselves.
The results, as you already know, are predictable, and for big summer entertainment anything else would likely disappoint. Action sequence follows action sequence, with some better than others: the duel between Seso and a Hassansin guard at the top of a glittering tower is particularly well-executed, and the siege of Alamut has a glowing, memorable intensity. Amar’s oasis of free enterprise and luxury, revolving largely around ostrich racing and betting, is gently hilarious thanks to Molina’s boisterous charm. If only the film had more such moments. Near the end of Dastan’s quest the story starts to get winded, and a Mulligan-esque plot twist may very well leave you annoyed instead of entertained.
Regarding the cast, Gyllenhaal is an actor who seems to have never quite found his niche, and as an action star he neither excels nor embarrasses himself. He’s beefed up enough for the part, a far cry from the slender milquetoasts of Zodiac and Donnie Darko, but the script lacks equal fleshing out in his characterization. Arterton gets to do more than she did in Clash of the Titans, her other sand and sandals epic this year, even if that more mostly involves scolding or rebuffing Dastan’s actions and advances. Kingsley is marvelous in a stock role, giving the scheming regent Nizam layers of phony warmth and affection that will make you question your (eventually validated) presumptions of his evil. As for Molina, he must derive some kind of satisfaction from stealing scenes from the younger and hunkier leading men of his films. Having already heisted chunks of Boogie Nights and Spider-Man 2, he continues that spree here. Probably no other actor could evince so much charming outrage over the fate of an ostrich.
Bruckheimer and Disney obviously hoped the film would spawn a series, much like Pirates of the Caribbean did seven years ago. (Unlike Pirates, they should remember not to make the sequels so staggeringly awful.) Look closely and you’ll see resemblances to Pirates in the plot events and locales – the orphan boy, the fight in the grotto, most likely others. Disney and Bruckheimer alike have never been averse to formula, either in concept or in practice, so much of this film will likely seem exotically familiar. It offers exactly what you probably expect, though sometimes more and sometimes possibly less.
- Michael Kabel